Psychology of Movies: Pertinent Books and Research

The psychology of movies is a topic that Skip Dine Young, a professor and clinical psychologist, takes on in Psychology at the Movies-he sees films as “equipment for living.”

As Steve Martin once said, “You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies — all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

Dine Young’s own brief book synopsis, as presented in Psychology Today: “All movies are psychologically alive, exploding with human drama. This drama can be seen from many different angles—in the movies themselves, in the people who make them, and in the people who watch them.” 

Moreover, many people’s impressions of therapy and various mental health issues come from the movies they’ve seen—a repeated concern found in this blog, as most film portrayals of therapy are off-base, misleading, and unfair.

Another book with a similar, though even more specific, topic is Positive Psychology at the Movies (2008), by Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding. This publication is regarded as suitable for those who want to learn more about positive psychology’s view of character strengths and virtues (see previous post “A Good Life“) via film.

Niemiec’s pick, for example, for best positive psychology film in 2011 was one I also liked. Win Win is about a troubled teenage boy and the lawyer (Paul Giamatti) with questionable ethics who provides him a home. Through different life lessons, each eventually shows growth.

In a recent USA Today article Niemiec is quoted regarding the positive psychology of 2012’s award-winning Argo. He believes the traits—including bravery, perseverance, strength, leadership, wisdom, and perspective—of the lead character played by Ben Affleck are what viewers have found so inspiring and worth seeing.

The writer of the above article, Sharon Jayson, also reports on the “sadfilm paradox”— when we value but don’t exactly “enjoy” certain films. Examples given that easily fit this category are Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Schindler’s List (1993). Wrenchingly emotional—yet I for one was glad I saw them.

A recent study led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State, monitored the feelings of people who watched one particular “sadfilm,” Atonement (2007), a story about the long-lasting effects of a teenager’s wrongheaded and serious accusation against a young man.

Why did viewers, including myself, so like this movie? According to the study, sadness “instigates life reflection.” Life reflection leads to greater appreciation of your own relationships. Greater appreciation of your close relationships leads to increased happiness.

So there you have it: Sad films—a path to happiness. Another tidbit brought to you by the psychology of movies.

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